Osaka

Introducing Osaka

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Osaka (大阪, Ōsaka) is Japan's second largest metropolitan area after Tokyo. It has been the economic powerhouse of the Kansai region for many centuries. Osaka was formerly known as Naniwa. Before the Nara Period, when the capital used to be moved with the reign of each new emperor, Naniwa was once Japan's capital city, the first one ever known.

In the 16th century, Toyotomi Hideyoshi chose Osaka as the location for his castle, and the city may have become Japan's political capital if Tokugawa Ieyasu had not terminated the Toyotomi lineage after Hideyoshi's death and moved his government to distant Edo (Tokyo).

Having received a bad rap as a tourist destination for many years, ŌSAKA (大阪), Japan’s third-largest city after Tokyo and Yokohama, has used public money to try and “re-brand” itself. The city is hoping to successfully improve its image, mainly through urban revitalization and ambitious architectural projects, to become a more attractive destination. It may still lack the pockets of beauty and refinement found in nearby Kyoto, but Ōsaka is a vibrant metropolis, inhabited by famously easy-going citizens with a taste for the good things in life.

Ōsakans speak one of Japan’s more earthy dialects, Ōsaka-ben, and are as friendly as Kyoto folk can be frosty. They may greet each other saying “Mō kari-makka?” (“Are you making any money?”), but Ōsakans also know how to enjoy themselves once work has stopped. There are large entertainment districts in the north and south of the city, and the Ōsaka live music scene showcases eclectic local talent as well as international acts. In a city that cultivated high arts, such as bunraku puppetry, the locals also have a gift for bawdy comedy; Takeshi “Beat” Kitano, the internationally famous film director, started his career as a comedian here. The city continues to produce successful comedy duos who dominate national TV variety shows, and Ōsakans are very proud that their dialect has now become popular as the language of comedians. Ōsaka is also one of Japan’s great food cities, but Ōsakans are not snobby about their cuisine; a typical local dish is takoyaki, grilled octopus dumplings, usually sold as a street snack.

The city also feels a welcoming place for foreigners. It has Japan’s largest community of Koreans and a growing gaijin population. There’s also a willingness to face up to uncomfortable social issues, exemplified by the city’s admirable civil rights museum, Liberty Ōsaka, which among other things focuses on Japan’s untouchables, the Burakumin. Similarly, Ōsaka’s homelessness problem has not been ignored, at least by citizens, and the Big Issue Japan started here in 2003.

If you want to escape Ōsaka’s urban landscape for a day, take a trip out to Takarazuka, home of the eponymous musical drama troupe. As well as taking in one of the all-female troupe’s glitzy shows, you can check out the imaginative artwork at the Tezuka Osamu Manga Museum, a showcase for local artist Tezuka, widely regarded as the god of manga.

Ōsaka’s best sights are scattered far and wide, but there are some areas worth exploring on foot. A fine place to start is the castle Ōsaka-jō and its immediate environs. Umeda (梅田), north of the centre, also has a few attractions, such as the rarefied Museum of Oriental Ceramics and the soaring skyscrapers near the clutch of train stations. The areas south of the Ogawa, including Shinsaibashi, Dōtombori, Amerika-mura and Namba, are almost exclusively shopping, eating and entertainment districts, which come to life at night (see Kita).

Another good area for strolling around is Tennōji, south of the centre, where you’ll find Shitennō-ji, the city’s most important temple, and an evocative old downtown area around Tennōji-kōen. Further south is Sumiyoshi Taisha, Ōsaka’s venerable shrine, an oasis of greenery amid the urban sprawl.

Heading west towards the port area, don’t miss out on the enlightening Liberty Ōsaka, a museum highlighting Japanese civil rights issues, or the ultra-cool Ōsaka Aquarium at Tempozan Harbour Village, which has the best collection of aquatic life on display in Japan. Nearby is the popular Universal Studios Japan, from where you can also easily visit the storybook-castle-like Maishima Incinerator Plant.

From Minami's neon-lighted Dotombori and historic Tenno-ji to the high-rise class and underground shopping labyrinths of Kita, Osaka is a city that pulses with its own unique rhythm. Though Osaka has no shortage of tourist sites, it is the city itself that is the greatest attraction. Home to some of Japan's best food, most unique fashions, and warmest locals, Osaka does not beg to be explored—it demands it. More than anywhere else in Japan, it rewards the impulsive turn down an interesting side street or the chat with a random stranger. People do not come here to see the city, they come to experience it.

Excluded from the formal circles of power and aristocratic culture in 16th-century Edo (Tokyo), Osaka took advantage of its position as Japan's trading center, developing its own art forms such as Bunraku puppet theater and Rakugo comic storytelling. It was in Osaka that feudal Japan's famed Floating World—the dining, theater, and pleasure district—was at its strongest and most inventive. Wealthy merchants and common laborers alike squandered fortunes on culinary delights, turning Osaka into "Japan's Kitchen," a moniker the city still has today. Though the city suffered a blow when the Meiji government canceled all of the samurai class's outstanding debts to the merchants, it was quick to recover. At the turn of the 20th century, it had become Japan's largest and most prosperous city, a center of commerce and manufacturing.

Today Osaka remains Japan's iconoclastic metropolis, refusing to fit Tokyo's norms and expectations. Unlike the hordes of Tokyo, Osakans are fiercely independent. As a contrast to the neon and concrete surroundings, the people of Osaka are known as Japan's friendliest and most outgoing. Ask someone on the street for directions in Tokyo and you are lucky to get so much as a glance. Ask someone in Osaka and you get a conversation.

The main areas of the city, Kita (north) and Minami (south), are divided by two rivers: the Dojima-gawa and the Tosabori-gawa. Between Kita and Minami is Naka-no-shima, an island and the municipal center of Osaka.

Kita (north of Chuo Dori) is Osaka's economic hub and contains Osaka's largest stations: JR Osaka and Hankyu Umeda. The area is crammed with shops, department stores, and restaurants. Nearby are a nightlife district, Kita-shinchi; Naka-no-shima and the Museum of Oriental Ceramics; Osaka-jo (Osaka Castle); and Osaka Koen (Osaka Park).

Restaurants, bars, department stores, and boutiques attract Osaka's youth to Minami (south Chuo Dori); theatergoers head to the National Bunraku Theatre and electronics-lovers to Den Den Town. For a glimpse of old Osaka, visit Tenno-ji Temple and Shin Sekai. The main stations are Namba, Shin-sai-bashi, Namba Nankai, and Tenno-ji. There's easy access to the Municipal Museum of Fine Art and Sumiyoshi Taisha (Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine).

The bay area, to the west of the city center, is home to the Osaka Aquarium and Universal Studios Japan. The Shinkansen stops at Shin-Osaka, three stops (about five minutes) north of Osaka Station on the Mido-suji subway line. To the north of Shin-Osaka is Senri Expo Park.

Things to see & do in Osaka

In the late 1980's and early 1990's the Kansai area with Osaka at its heart was producing 5% of the world's GDP. Those heady days may have passed as the Kansai area and Osaka have been overtaken by such mega-cities as Shanghai, Shenzhen and Tianjin in China but Osaka and its hinterland of the Kansai region still remain a powerhouse in the Japanese economy.

Osaka has been an important port and mercantile city in Japan since the early Edo Period and before since Toyotomi Hideyoshi founded Osaka Castle in 1596. Osaka supplied goods such as rice, sake, ceramics and fineries from Kyoto to the capital in Edo (Tokyo) by sea.

Osaka, like Tokyo, is divided into distinct areas each with their own unmistakable character: Nakanoshima is the cultural and administrative center of Osaka located on an island in the Yodogawa River, Den-Den Town (an electronics shopping area in Daikokucho and Osaka's equivalent to Tokyo's Akihabara), Umeda, Shinsaibashi and Namba are the places for shopping and nightlife.

The new developments near Osaka Port on the coast at Tempozan including Osaka Aquarium and the nearby Universal Studios have become the new reasons to visit the city. The southern part of the city around Tennoji, which includes the historic temple of Shitennoji, Shin-Sekai (New World) and Osaka Zoo has its own particular draw.

Spa World near Dobutsuen-mae Station (Osaka Zoo) in the Tennoji district is a super onsen with a capacity of 5,000 bathers who can wander bath areas modeled on those of Turkey, India, Rome, China and other countries.

Tsuruhashi is Osaka's Korea Town with a unique ambiance and a good opportunity to sample Korean food.

Osaka is divided into Kita (north) and Minami (south). Kita is the main business area of the city located around JR Osaka and Umeda stations, whereas Minami is the shopping and entertainment district centered on Namba and Shinsaibashi with the more earthy Dotombori roughly in the middle of the two places.

Dojima-gawa and Tosabori-gawa are the two rivers that divide Kita and Minami, with the administrative area of Nakanoshima sandwiched between the two.

Osaka-jo Castle (near Kyobashi Station) is one of Osaka's main attractions and the large Osaka-jo Koen (Osaka Castle Park) has bands and other cultural and music events in the grounds on weekends.

Umeda Sky Building is a 173 meter high building formed of two separate tower blocks connected at the top, somewhat reminiscent of the Grand Arch in La defense, Paris. Completed in 1993, it was designed by architect Hiroshi Hara who is probably best known for the new Kyoto Station.

Osaka's many excellent museums include the Osaka Maritime Museum, which traces the importance of the sea and the city's rivers and canals in the commercial history of Osaka, the Osaka Municipal Museum of Art, Peace Osaka dedicated to Japan's World War II experience, the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, the Suntory Museum (now the Osaka Tempozan Special Art Gallery), the Osaka Museum of History, the Liberty Osaka Museum (Osaka Human Rights Museum), which details such taboo subjects as Japan's Burakumin, foreigners and the environment, the National Museum of Art in Nakanoshima and the Instant Ramen Museum.

Temples and shrines in Osaka of interest include the ancient Shitennoji Temple in Tennoji, nearby Isshinji Temple, the Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine and Imamiya Ebisu Shrine.

The National Bunraku Theater holds performances of traditional Japanese puppet theater and is the best place in Japan to catch this unique art form.

Around Osaka

Osaka is centrally located and is easy to base yourself in the city and visit other locations for day or half-day tours.

Kyoto

Japan's ancient capital of temples, shrines, gardens and palaces can be reached in under one hour.

Kobe

The port city of Kobe is only 30 minutes away and offers historic Western-style houses, a Chinatown and a pleasant ocean-side environment.

Koyasan

Mount Koya offers a cooler mountain-top climate and beautiful forested hills with many temples of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism.

Nara

The temples and parks of Nara are only 50 minutes from Osaka Station City using the JR Yamatoji Rapid Service or 33 minutes from Tsuruhashi Station to Kintetsu Nara by Kintetsu train.

Okayama, Himeji, Kurashiki

Okayama with its famous Korakuen garden, Kurashiki and the famous Himeji Castle are also close to Osaka. Okayama is 45 minutes from Shin-Osaka Station on the shinkansen, change at Okayama and Kurashiki is a further 17 minutes by JR Hakubi Line train. Himeji is 38 minutes by shinkansen bullet train from Shin-Osaka Station or an hour by normal Special Rapid Service from Osaka Station City in Umeda.

Read more Osaka travel guide at here.

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